Legendaries — first aid for class balance?

Admin note: This post contains quite a few references to specific Beastmastery hunter talents. I have thrown in some Wowhead links, but if you want a more comprehensive picture of the talent table, check out the Icy Veins one here.

The latest development in Legion legendaries, reported by MMO-C as part of the most recent PTR build, is that now some of them will actually grant the wearer a talent from their spec’s talent table. For example, the new hunter legendary will grant Beastmasters the Dire Stable talent, a level 15 talent that increases focus generation while you have a Dire Beast active.

Well. Where to start?

I am not a theory crafter, so my take on this goes more to fundamentals than it does to actual numbers. But the first thing that occurs to me is this particular talent level has ever only had two choices for BM hunters — Way of the Cobra for single target fights and Dire Stable for multitarget fights. No one I know has ever selected the third talent in that row, Big Game Hunter, because it stinks and has stunk since it was introduced. It is a non-choice. So the new legendary effectively means BM hunters can have their cake and eat it too in this talent tier. It also means if you have the new legendary you have no other choices in this talent row, you will take Way of the Cobra. I am not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing out how it will play out.

The second effect this will have is to buff BM damage somewhat, at least for single target fights, because we will be generating extra focus. The effect on multitarget fights is less clear, I think, because Cobra Shot is not often used on those, so the extra damage may be moot. Number crunchers will undoubtedly play with various combos, including the desirability of using multiple Cobra Shots over Multishot for medium-size groups of targets.

Additionally, one of the basic complaints about BM hunter mechanics is that the player has zero control over focus generation — is completely dependent on auto-generation of this resource. With the exception of the really terrible talent Chimaera Shot, we have no power-generating shots, we are completely at the mercy of Blizz’s idea of how fast that critical factor should generate. One result of this early on was the clunky, start-and-stop nature of the rotation. It is still a problem, though most of us still playing the spec just grimly accept it after months of enduring it.

Dire Stable, while still not allowing control over focus generation, does increase the rate noticeably. So the fact that lucky winners of the new legendary will not have to choose between increased focus and increased single target damage will be nice, I suppose. I doubt if it will be a game changer, but it will be helpful.

But here’s the thing: Blizz is using legendaries to fix glaring problems with spec mechanics, problems that players identified months ago during alpha testing and have continued to point out ever since Legion went live. 

The most obvious and egregious flaw in this plan is — well, I hesitate to point out the obvious but here goes:

ONLY LUCKY PEOPLE GET TO HAVE THE FLAW FIXED.

What the hell, Blizz? If there is a mechanics problem with a spec glaring enough for even the most clueless dev to notice, shouldn’t the fix be available to all players? Why do you insist on making a lottery of everything? What is wrong in your brains? For the umpteenth time, Mr. Game Director Ion “I Am The Sole Arbiter of Fun” Hazzikostas, RNG is not fun except for the uber-lucky early winners. For all the rest of us who spend hours and days and months rolling the dice for that one piece of playstyle-changing gear, it is the furthest thing in the game from fun. Even when we finally get it — if we ever do — it is not a woohoo moment but rather a “oh thank god that is over” one.

Beyond the lunacy of basing spec mechanics fixes on pure luck, there is another aspect to this. It seems evident from WoD and Legion that Blizz is unable to adequately balance individual spec mechanics and numbers without ending up with obvious winners and losers — specs that are either overpowered or dismally puny performers. And when they have tried to fix glaring inequities the changes have frequently lurched from one extreme to the other. Everyone understands the class/spec balance and playstyle issues are complex. So why make them even more so by introducing additional factors?

Introducing a complicated artifact trait table made balancing specs more difficult by an order of magnitude. Introducing other gear — tier and legendaries — with significant spec-enhancing bonuses made it even more so.

If you are someone who is challenged when you are asked to bring microwave green beans to Thanksgiving dinner, it is almost certainly not a good idea to also volunteer to bring the turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Even though you hope it will help fix your green bean inadequacies, you are just setting yourself up for failure.

So, although I think the new legendary talents may help some specs in the near term,  using RNG gear to address known problems is a terrible way to do it. Not only is it a lazy approach, but in the long run it only serves to make the entire class/spec system more complex, more fragile, and consequently more prone to imbalance as a result of even tiny changes that can reverberate through the system in unexpected ways. Blizz should just stick to perfecting their green beans.

With that, I am out for the weekend.

For stat geeks

There is a lot on my plate in the real world today, so this will be an abbreviated post. But I want to give a plug to a hunter who provides an excellent service to the community. Delirium over at Thrill of the Wild does not post often, but when he does it is frequently to do a lot of math heavy lifting for the rest of us. His deep dives on hunter stats over the years have helped me a lot.

If you are a math whiz, you can follow his extensive spreadsheets and testing results, and use them to make calculations for your own hunter. But if you are “math challenged” like I am, you can skip over that part and just read his bottom lines, which are written in normal and useful language.

An ongoing project of his is to break out hunter stat conversions and ability formulas, for all hunter specs as well as for pets. It is updated with each new patch and relevant hotfix. His results are all based on extensive testing, not tooltips, so they may differ from some more popular sites. I encourage you, if you have the time, to check it out. It takes a bit of dedication to get into the charts, but you are well rewarded if you do so. I was especially interested in the ability formula tables, because they tell you which abilities are affected by the spec’s most important secondary stats such as mastery or haste. For example, if you are deciding which stats to enchant or gem for, or which talents will take advantage of your current stat build, these tables can help you.

So many questions, so little time

Looking back over my education, I think the single most important skill I learned was to ask questions. The Jesuits who schooled me were big believers in the Socratic Method, so we were not only encouraged but required to ask questions as part of every learning process. Sure, fractions and Shakespeare and the date of the Magna Carta and the underpinnings of an agrarian economy are all good to know. But when it comes right down to it, asking the right questions at the right time of the right people has saved my bacon in life more times than I can count.

So today I have been thinking about Patch 8.x. Yes, I know we are not even a year into Legion, and the hints from Blizz are that we have a lot of time left to experience it (my bet at the start was that we are looking at Legion being with us for very close to 3 years). Still, I feel like speculating a bit, in the form of a series of questions.

Location.

  • Is the 7.3 excursion to Argus a prelude to the next expansion, or is it just that — a one-off adventure?
  • Will we ever see the other side of Azeroth? Is there an other side?
  • What if any lessons did Blizz learn about time-travel worlds like Draenor and underwater zones like Vashj’ir? This is less a question than it is a hope — I hope they learned both these ideas were big mistakes.
  • Will Blizz expand its recent trend of making classic parts of Azeroth relevant to current game play? 

Stats.

  • What will be the nature of the next stat squish? I think a dev mentioned that much of the code has been rewritten to accommodate very large numbers now, it still is cumbersome for humans to speak of character health in the millions and boss health in the billions, for example. What about ilevel? Very soon even in Legion we will break break into 4-digit ilevels. Will secondary stats and damage/healing numbers be squished in 8.x?
  • Will stats be simplified in the next expansion? What is the official Blizz view of the complexity of stats in Legion? Do they understand the frustration of players when a higher level piece of gear is not an upgrade? Are they happy with the proliferation of web sites and apps designed to do the intricate math necessary to determine a piece of gear’s worth to a player? 

Quest hubs and population centers.

  • Will we see new faction capitals? Blizz seems — both in WoD and Legion — to have concluded that faction capital cities are too resource-intensive to justify them. If Sanctuary Cities are the norm for the foreseeable future, will we see more of them in Horde areas, with Horde racial architecture?
  • What has Blizz learned about the garrison concept? It was innovative but not well liked in WoD, and it was extended — as Class Halls — in Legion. Is this idea now a core game mechanic going forward? Will we see the concept applied as guild halls in 8.x?  More wishful thinking on that last one, I am afraid.
  • Why is Blizz so dead set against player housing? This is really more of a pet peeve question and not so much of an insightful one about the next expansion. Certainly the technology is there — that was proven with garrisons, and with Sunsong Ranch before that. And there is player demand for it, though I am not sure how much. Yet Blizz steadfastly refuses to do it, citing from time to time the “war footing” nature of the game as being antithetical to cozy homesteading. My own opinion, completely biased, is that there is a culture at Blizz that insists WoW is a “hardcore” game, and to give players housing is just too girly and frilly for them to contemplate. They put it in the same category as playing house or cutting out paper dolls, and that would destroy the manly studly war aspect of the game. (Yeah, yeah, let the hate mail begin. But deep down you know I am right.)

Class development.

  • Will there be another major rewrite of classes in 8.x?
  • What is Blizz’s long range vision of class roles and balance? Are they on a path to achieve this, or do they have none and merely make change for change’s sake each expansion?
  • And the big question: Can Blizz stop screwing with hunters for at least one expansion? (Sarcasm flag.)
  • Will we see the pendulum swing once again towards class-provide raid buffs?

Gear.

  • Is the concept of artifact gear a one-and-out for Legion, as Blizz has claimed? 
  • Are there any big contemplated gear changes in 8.x, for example cutting the number of gear slots, maybe by eliminating necks and rings?
  • Will we see some sort of non-RNG mechanism for getting gear in 8.x?
  • After the debacle of legendaries in Legion, what is the future of legendaries going forward? Will we return to a single long-questline legendary, or have we crossed a line and henceforward they will fall like candy?

Miscellaneous.

  • Is Blizz happy with the complexity level of the game now? If not, in which direction do they think it should go?
  • Are there in-game advertisements in the works? Tie-ins with other Activision franchises, such as the King line of games?
  • What is the future for professions? Will we see them get less relevant and more complex, or will we see some semblance of a return to their classic role? Will Blizz move towards a Final Fantasy approach? Are they indeed an integral part of the game’s economy, or would it be possible to eliminate them altogether?
  • Will alt play remain viable in 8.x? It is narrowly so in Legion, but Blizz’s clear preference is for players to have very limited number of alts.
  • Are there significant quality of life improvements in store for 8.x? Off hand, I can think of a few: account-wide banking, better group finder interface, unlimited quest log, *coughplayerhousingcough*, removal of that ridiculous talent-changing tome requirement, improving exit process from caves once a quest is completed, increasing the number of stable slots for hunter pets, adding mythic dungeons to the auto-group finder, probably lots more.
  • Will Blizz help to make the role of guilds more robust? Like alt play, the trend since mid-Mists has been to make guilds less and less relevant, with the removal of most guild perks and advantages to guild membership.
  • With the apparent advent of interplanetary travel, will we eventually see honest-to-goodness actual working space ship “mounts”? Will space actually be a working environment — like an underwater area only without water — or just more of an abstract concept?
  • What will be the eternal-grind mechanism of 8.x? Because we know there will be one, just a matter of how Blizz repackages AP (like they repackaged garrisons into class halls).

And last but certainly not least:

Will we get a concept of the next expansion at Blizzcon this year?

What questions do you have?

Time and the bottom line

Activision Blizzard conducted its public Q1 2017 Earnings Call yesterday. For those of you unfamiliar with this quarterly ritual, it is a conference call conducted to inform ATVI stockholders of the company’s financial status. The company being traded publicly, the transcript of the call is published for anyone when cares to read it, and in fact if you really are into masochism, you can register with ATVI in advance and sign up to be on the call (in theory, that is — I have never tried this, can’t imagine why I would actually). This conference call accompanies the public release of the financial report for the quarter. I am not even going to give links to these things — you can easily find them if you search, and honestly they are very dry and dull. There is, however, a quick and dirty summary on MMO-C if you care to read it.

There was not much in the latest report/call that had to do with WoW. In fact, there hasn’t been much for a few quarters now, usually only a brief mention of a new expansion or some comment about Monthly Active Users or Daily Active Users. That in itself is sometimes eye-opening to WoW players, because it underscores the undeniable fact that WoW is no longer the flagship it once was, it really is a minor part of the growing ATVI empire. In the big corporate picture, you definitely get the impression that WoW is a bit of a dinosaur — it is still a revenue producer, but it is does not seem to be part of ATVI’s vision for the future of gaming.

There were one or two points that I picked up on in the report, though. The first was the opening statement by Bobby Kotick, CEO of ATVI. You can sum it up in one word: esports. A partial quote:

One of our big priorities is to unlock the full potential of professional esports by opening the sale of teams and media rights of our leagues. Over the years, we’ve become a leader in creating world class competitive experiences, sustainable franchises that engage hundreds of millions of people around the world, through gameplay competition and connecting players and communities. This success is driven by our ability to tap into the timeless power of communities, anchored through organized competition.

The esports audience includes some of the hardest to reach and most sought-after demographics for marketers and advertisers, with the share of millennials two to three times higher than any of the big four U.S. sports.

We’re also going to combine delivery of our spectator content with unique advertising opportunities that includes the ability for advertisers to have better targeting and analytics, much more so than what you would see in traditional forms of broadcast advertising today. And with over 400 million MAUs and extremely high levels of engagement, our potential to generate meaningful advertising revenue is substantial.

Of course, it is not news that ATVI is betting heavily on esports. And no one should be surprised that the WoW franchise plays only a tiny part in that expansion — it is really focused on ATVI’s other, newer, games. What did strike me, though, is the very strong implication that ATVI is more than willing to use its entire stable of games — along with the very considerable and detailed data it collects on player activities and preferences — to “generate meaningful advertising revenue.” I confess I do not really know what that means, but it does tend to give me an itchy feeling between my shoulder blades now if I decide to click on the in-game Blizzard shop, or if I routinely check the Mac technical forum on the Blizz web site. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral about this, and it certainly is a widespread practice any time you use the Internet, it’s just that I had previously not considered it as part of WoW. Yeah, I know that is naive, but still Kotick’s comment got my attention. Are we on the path to becoming less valuable as customers and more valuable as ATVI mass data products?

The other major point I took from the report were a couple of related comments.

This, from ATVI COO Thomas Tippi:

Blizzard continues to see strong engagement from its players with time spent increasing by a double digit percentage year-over-year to a new Q1 record.

Blizzard’s strategy to release content and feature updates more regularly in World of Warcraft has been paying off with time spent up year-over-year, and with overall performance ahead of the prior expansion.

And this, from Blizzard CEO Michael Morhaime:

So, yeah, this year for Blizzard represents a new type of pipeline, one that’s not necessarily based on full game launches, but instead on delivering new content updates for our games. This quarter, we have meaningful new content for every franchise in our portfolio. In fact, a few weeks ago we set a new DAU record on the back of these new content updates. This reflects the evolution of our business from focusing primarily on full game releases to also providing a consistent stream of content for our players. Even without any full game launches this year, we’re continuing to add to the depths of our games to serve a very highly engaged community with more content across our portfolio than we ever have before.

Anyone who thinks the grindy aspects of Legion is just an expansion peculiarity needs to think again. It is, in fact the plan for the foreseeable future. We can expect the next expansion to stretch out professions, leveling, gearing up, achievements — every activity in the game — even more than Legion does. Why? Because time spent in the game is the metric for game success in ATVI.

Is this tactic really “content”? Who knows? The fact is that whatever it is, it has succeeded — at least so far — in evening out WoW player engagement. Whether you like or hate Legion or are somewhere in between, it seems to have kept more players  logging in further into the expansion than previously. Legion’s strategy seems to be a financial success, as measured by MAU/DAU. It is hard to argue with that. And while it can seem grindy — hell, it is grindy —  it is also fun, certainly to those of us actively playing.

Still, there is this stubborn, contrary part of me that feels manipulated and used. It’s the same feeling you get when you suddenly realize someone is taking advantage of you. I feel like Blizz is pushing my loyalty to the game so as to get better quarterly numbers. Yeah, I know that is why they are in business, but this feels different somehow.

It’s like this: What if movie theaters suddenly changed their business plan to measure success by how long movie patron cars remained in the parking lot? So once you got to the theater, there were deliberate setups that ensured long lines for tickets, for popcorn, for the bathrooms, to get to your seat. They added a gift shop you had to pass through in order to get to the seating area. They tripled or quadrupled all the pre-movie ads and trailers and trivia games. They added several intermissions to every movie. They gave you a coupon of some sort if you stayed after the movie was over to complete a customer feedback survey. And so forth. How would you feel about your movie experience? Chances are, if you really wanted to see the movie in a theater, you would still go, but you would not consider most of the experience to be happy. Some would undoubtedly love all the new “content”, but many others would remember when they used to be able to do the movie experience in 3 hours, but now it took 5 or 6, and they would not be pleased about it.

I don’t have any grand conclusions about all this. It was, after all, just a financial report. Still, it did give us a couple of insights into what the future may hold.

Speaking of which, my future includes a weekend. Weather weenies tell us it will be cool and rainy in my part of Virginia — perfect for staying warm and dry inside and playing WoW or watching a movie.

Wait, what?

On Monday I wrote about Blizz’s surprising announcement of planned baseline improvements to BM hunters. Basically, I was encouraged because the changes addressed two of the most fundamental problems with BM mechanics — problems that had been identified and quantified as early as the alpha testing phase, and problems Blizz had stubbornly ignored for all of Legion. However, I cautioned that the changes were so significant that there would almost certainly be some power nerfs to the spec, and we would have to see what those turned out to be.

Lo and behold, within hours of that post, Bendak over at Eyes of the Beast broke the news detailing the first round of “tuning changes” designed to compensate for the new baseline abilities. You can read Bendak’s post for the details, but they are pretty brutal. As Bendak points out, and I completely agree, it is somewhat early in the process, and this is a first cut at balancing the new BM power structure, so no need to panic just yet.

Nevertheless, what we have seen time and again with Blizz in Legion development is that their final cut is frequently only slightly different than their first cut. They suffer from a strong anchoring bias, rendering them incapable of significant change once embarked on a course of action, even if that course of action is determined early in a testing phase. Too often for Blizz, FD=FD (first draft equals final draft). I do not know if this is due to constraints of resources or of mental agility, but the end result is that terrible ideas — even if beta or PTR testers point them out — often make it into live versions. Thus, while I am not yet in panic mode over the BM tuning adjustments, I am definitely starting to worry.

Two aspects of these changes puzzle me. One is the nerf to tier gear. As it currently stands, Bendak points out that the T20 gear will be worse than the T19 gear, and in fact the best way to incorporate it will be to equip basically 6 pieces of tier gear — some mix of T19 and T20. This is insane, in my opinion.

Such a move is a continuation of Blizz’s abysmal morass of gear in Legion, where it is frequently impossible to know if a piece of higher level gear is an upgrade or not without consulting web sites and running complex simulations. How in the hell did we get into this situation anyway? Remember when Blizz was so solicitous of our tiny brains that they removed reforging because it was too mathy? They didn’t want gear to be “complicated”.

HAHAHAHA! Good one, Blizz, we totally fell for that.

And now we are at the point where an actual piece of legendary gear may or may not be an upgrade, where ilevel is often meaningless, where in some cases secondary stats are more important than primary ones, and apparently soon where new tier gear is actually worse than the older stuff. And the mechanisms for weighing the relative values of gear are so complex that it takes sophisticated computer programs to decide.

Here’s an idea, Blizz: If it’s higher level gear, it should be an upgrade. Period. 

In complex systems, components are intricately interrelated, often beyond what a human brain can comprehend in any detail. WoW is an enormously complex system. The pattern I see in Blizz development is that their systems engineers and coders almost certainly understand this, but their class designers are only dimly aware of it. Thus, they happily redesign class structures nearly every expansion, then seem genuinely puzzled and surprised when it causes huge problems reflected in gear and in overall power balance in game activities ranging from PvP to raids to nearly every other activity. To compensate, they spend most of every expansion tweaking (sometimes mega-tweaking) numbers and adding bandaid gear fixes, until the whole system comes to some state of very delicate balance — usually by the end of the expansion. Sometimes they find they have painted themselves into a corner, and they write big problems off as unfixable, regardless of the effect such action may have on players. (Thinking SV hunters in WoD here.) Then, having learned nothing, they start the entire process again for a new expansion.

I think this partially explains why we are in such a terrible place with gear in Legion. Adding new gear, or tinkering with stats in sought after pieces like legendaries or tier, has to be easier than reworking fundamental class/spec mechanics once an expansion goes live. Certainly for hunters we have seen Blizz use gear to try and fix baseline problems. Remember the 4-piece tier for MM hunters in WoD — it was what made the spec at least playable though still not really enjoyable. Similarly, the legendary shoulders were introduced in Legion to try and fix the clunky unresponsive BM play style. These were problems players identified early on in test phases, but Blizz refused to address them at that point, apparently being too anchored to them to even consider moving away from them. Then, when live versions proved players right, Blizz seemed surprised and tried all sorts of complicated bandaids to fix what could have been more elegantly addressed in test phases.

So here we are yet again — devs deciding that BM hunters were actually right way back in alpha testing, that something like two charges to Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy is absolutely needed to breathe some fun into the spec. They tried to fix it with a piece of gear, but then they made that gear an extremely rare drop, thereby punishing every hunter unlucky enough to not get it. Having decided that all BM hunters should have this ability, they then announced that it would be baseline in 7.2.5. So far, so good.

But I said, there are two puzzling aspects to Blizz’s brutal nerf to BM hunters, and the second is this:

If Blizz was fine with some hunters having the legendary shoulders and therefore getting the perk of 2 charges for DB/DF, why are they now distraught at the prospect of every BM hunter having the perk, so much so that they must apply draconian nerfs to the entire spec? The power increase with two charges is significant, no argument there, but why was it okay for some lucky hunters to have that additional power but it is unacceptable for all to have it?

We all expected Blizz to extract payment from hunters for “giving” us something we should have had all along. It is what they do. (Remember the great flying crisis in WoD.) Still, these particular types of payments make no sense to me whatsoever.

Woohoo and Holy Moly!

There is only one possible topic for today’s post, and I’m certain you all know what it is: The Blue post BM hunters have been waiting for ever since, well, the early days of Legion alpha testing:

Hi Beast Masters. We’ve been reading your feedback and trying different sets of changes for Beast Mastery Hunters internally and on PTR.

To start, we are reverting all 7.2.5 changes we’ve made so far to how Wild Call triggers. Instead, Dire Beast and Dire Frenzy will have 2 charges baseline. The Mantle of Command (legendary shoulders that currently add +1 charge to Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy) will be changed to instead further increase the proc chance of Wild Call.

Overall, this will result in more Focus for all Beast Mastery Hunters, resulting in a more active rotation. Additionally, this gives all Beast Mastery Hunters access to a Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy with 2 charges playstyle that is more engaging and fun, allowing you to make decisions on when to use the buttons, instead of feeling like you should most often simply push them on cooldown.

We’ve been trying other iterations of changes surrounding Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy and Wild Call, including increasing Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy Focus generation or versions that avoided changing the legendary shoulders drastically, but ultimately reached the conclusion that giving 2 charges to the abilities baseline, which many of you have asked for, was the best change for the spec at the current time. We appreciate your patience while we try different iterations on PTR.

We are also making a few other less major changes to the spec in the next PTR patch, including: 

  • Aspect of the Wild will reduce the global cooldowns of your damaging abilities by 0.2 seconds, allowing you to more reliably spend the Focus you’re generating while it’s active, especially with Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy going off.
  • Kill Command and Dire Frenzy will cause your pet/Hati to charge up to 40 yds (up from 25 yds) to the target, matching the max range of your ranged abilities.
  • When your pet casts Dash, Hati will also gain Dash for the same duration.

Halla

Freaking

Looyah

This was the best news Beast Mastery hunters have had in — literally — years. When it was first posted, I actually had to read it several times for it to sink in. The announcement came as a total surprise to me, and I suspect to most hunters, because the few mutterings we had had thus far from Blizz on any hunter changes in 7.2.5 were pretty underwhelming. I am not going to enumerate them, but basically they were depressing because they echoed the same pattern we have seen in BM hunter rotations since the beginning of Legion: next to zero player control, relegating the hunter to the role of dropping all the leashes at the start of a fight and periodically hollering “Sic ’em!” So, after a couple of desultory comments thus far about continuing this trend in 7.2.5, to suddenly get what amounts to the two most major changes we have been pleading for throughout Legion is just jaw-dropping.

For those of you who have not played BM hunters in Legion, it’s hard to convey the enormity of this announced change. It restores some real options and player control to the spec, and I think most of all it restores some excitement and fun to the rotation. The two most major complaints about BM in Legion have been the clunky, mash-the-buttons-on-cooldown nature of the rotation; and the frustration with having what is supposed to be an awesome all-powerful weapon wedded to the spirit beast Hati, only to have him take his own sweet time ambling about in a fight, much like That Guy in LFR. There have been hundreds of pages and thousands of comments on these two shortfalls, and frankly most BM hunters finally just gave up on ever seeing any significant improvement.

It was puzzling to many BM hunters that, when Blizz did finally seem to respond, it was to create the legendary shoulders, a move that only served to further frustrate those who were not lucky enough to have them drop. My feeling before I got them was that Blizz had taken the RNG concept far beyond the pale by making it the deciding factor as to a spec being playable and fun. When I finally did get the shoulders a couple of weeks ago and first tried them, it was a “Holy Moly!” moment. I actually laughed out loud with delight when I was trying them out in front of the target dummies. Two charges for Dire Beast/Dire Frenzy absolutely should be baseline, not dependent on good luck.

The Blue post called the other 7.2.5 changes “less major”, but they are nonetheless huge in my opinion. For one thing, reducing the global cooldowns while Aspect of the Wild is active should lessen the chance of capping on focus, which in turn will increase damage. But of greater impact, I think, are the changes to pet behavior. Making Hati actually dash instead of ambling will certainly cut down on player frustration, but it should also make a noticeable change in damage numbers. And extending the range of pets to match that of other ranged abilities should, among other benefits, eliminate that maddening situation when you think you are starting a fight and both your pet and Hati just stand there looking cute but dumb. (I am intrigued by the possibilities of the range extension if the range is measured not from the hunter’s position but from the pet’s.)

I am sure there will be tweaks and adjustments to the 7.2.5 BM changes, because I think the net result as announced is likely to make the spec much more powerful than Blizz intends or is good for the game’s class structure. So we should all expect some “nerfs”. But to me, the huge significance of the changes lies not so much in the numbers but rather in what looks to be a philosophical change in the basic BM design — away from the idea that hunters are passive onlookers, and towards the idea that we are indeed masters of our beasts, that we actually control their behavior and that our decisions influence outcomes.

It took too long for Blizz to recognize the harm they did to BM hunters in Legion, but I am ecstatic that they did finally come around to understanding and — hopefully — fixing some of the baseline play style problems.

Finally, some good news for hunters.

Message on classes?

 

Yesterday, as I am sure you all know, there was another Blizz Q&A, this time with Game Director Ion Hazzikostas. I watched it live, then parts of it again this morning as I was munching my corn flakes. There were really no great revelations, and of course everyone will have their own take on it. If you want to check it out for yourselves, Wowhead has video of the entire interview and a nice text summary on this page.

In spite of the fact that we were told the Q&A is not the venue for discussing class balance issues, the one thing that struck me was a pretty defined thread of Legion class development weaving through many of the answers given to questions on varied topics. I think we are in the middle of a pretty significant swing on the entire philosophy of classes in WoW. That is not really news, I guess, but I do think we are finally seeing the emergence of a more or less clearly articulated set of class policies, which is something we have not had for some time now in the game.

The way I would express this policy is:

External game mechanisms are more important for determining class strengths than are individual player abilities, and those mechanisms should influence group compositions. 

Yeah, I know, but hear me out.

Gear. Gear level is the default measuring stick for all content in the game. Hazzikostas was pretty blunt about this when asked about the difficulty of the class artifact challenges in 7.2. He went to some pains to point out that the challenges were actually designed to get easier with better gear, and that player abilities could only go so far to beat the challenges absent good gear, and in some cases very specific gear.

However, in an apparent nod to player abilities (along with an obedient bow to the elitist mentality), he did add he is “confident that there will be a large number of people who just aren’t able to do [the artifact challenges]”. Yes, he used the word “confident”, which implies approval of the development. We don’t know whether he has this confidence because he also has confidence in the inept play of many players or because he has confidence in the fact that RNG makes getting decent gear unlikely for many players.

Nevertheless, the message was pretty clear: gear should matter more than almost any other factor.

External buffs discussion. This was eye-opening to me. The question being answered had to do with the wisdom of continuing to have external group buffs — of which there are currently very few. But Hazzikostas’s answer was quite far-reaching, I thought. It went far beyond the actual question, almost as if the question had been chosen to allow a public policy statement.

He first explained he thinks there should be more group-contributing type abilities, “not just numbers-driven ones”. I found this to be pretty amazing, considering Legion had gone to some pains to strip away almost all raid buffs.

He also expressed what I presume is the official Blizz stance on class value — that the game had veered too far in the direction of “bring the player not the class”, and that there is in his opinion significant value in bringing certain classes because of their unique group contributions. In fairness, he did point out that you can go too far in this direction, giving Sunwell Plateau as an example. But the message was clear: class should matter in group selection. He even went so far as to give the example of selecting a less-skilled warlock over, say “a third hunter”.

I admit I was annoyed that the only mention he made of hunters in the entire Q&A was to intimate there are too many of them, and that they are just generic damage dealers, but that is petty of me. And maybe I am reading too much into this, but it seems like he has completely forgotten that hunters used to be the premier utility class until under his watch nearly all utility functions were stripped from them. And now he has the nerve to imply hunters have no special utility and therefore should be replaced by a class that does have some??? OK, mini-rant over.

Anyway, I think this pronouncement is the formalization of the sea change in Blizz’s class development philosophy that we have observed evolving in Legion. I do not think it is overstating it to say that Blizz is moving back towards the idea of optimal class mixes for raids. In fact, he made this plain when he said (direct quote), “A well rounded group should always be the best one”.

Whether this will have any appreciable effect on non-elite raid teams remains to be seen. It seems unlikely, especially for flexible-sized difficulty levels. I suspect most semi-casual raid teams seldom run at the full 30 capacity, so if they have a few extra hunters (big fat raspberry to you, Mr. Ion “I Hate Hunters” Hazzikostas) it does not mean they can’t still add that oh-so-useful Warlock…

It will have an effect, I suppose, on Mythic raid teams, but many of those already configure their rosters based on class/spec contributions for specific fights. It could have an effect also on those non-Mythic teams who occasionally dip a toe into Mythic raids. I am thinking of my own guild, where just because of membership we frequently run with 4 or more hunters — if “proper” class mix becomes a thing, some of those hunters, regardless of their play abilities, could be asked to sit out if they are preventing a “useful” class from coming along. I think guild philosophy would supersede benching a regular raider solely because of their class, but if having a certain class mix is a clearly superior strategy, it could happen.

Another area that might be affected is pugs. Hazzikostas seemed to think increasing class relevance would be beneficial to pugs, because group leaders would not just be looking to grab the player with the highest ilevel. True, but it could also serve to really harm a class perceived to have no “special” contributions. Even if Blizz is forward-thinking enough to give every spec an identifiable beneficial utility, it could still backfire if that spec’s utility was not useful in certain fights — you might be able to get all the first wing Nighthold you could handle, for example, but no group would even think of picking you up for the second wing.

I often criticize Blizz for not communicating policy changes, so it is only fair that I hand them a kudo this time. Though it was subtle, I do think Ion Hazzikostas in the Q&A delivered a policy pronouncement on the role of classes in Legion and going forward: Gear and group utility (as handed out by Blizz in the form of unique class abilities) are significant pieces of class power, slightly outweighing player proficiency except in the most extreme cases, and it is desirable that these class attributes play a role in determining group composition strategies.

I may not agree with it, but I can’t argue that I have not been told about it.

Oh, and Blizz, please for the love of anything you may hold dear —

GIVE HUNTERS BACK THEIR RAID UTILITIES.

And have a good weekend.